A Top Ten on Madeira
Fresh from Madeira, here is a personal “Top Ten” on the island and its wines, ten facts I know now that I didn’t know three weeks ago:
1. Discovered in the 15th century by the Portuguese (although this is perhaps controversial – there is some evidence that mariners knew of the islands long before this ‘discovery’), the island held immediate appeal for agriculture. Wheat was planted first, quickly followed by sugarcane, but grapes – particularly Malvasia – were there from the outset as well. Touring the island today, the most obvious crop is bananas, but there are still plenty of vineyards to be seen. I didn’t see much sugarcane though!
2. There are only eight producers of Madeira still in existence; some are recent creations, e.g. Barbeito which was ‘born’ in 1946, while some are ancient companies (or the amalgamation of several ancient companies), such as the Madeira Wine Company, now led by the Blandy family, which can trace its origins back to the arrival of John Blandy from the UK in 1811. John Blandy was a banker who sought employment in a “counting house” on the island, but within a few years of his arrival he was established as a shipper and trader of wine.
3. Despite this there are hundreds of growers of grapes. The figure most commonly touted during my visit was 800, and they all sell their grapes to the producers. Some growers are very large, but others are very small, back-garden affairs.
4. Ask about terroir on Madeira (I did!) and you might just receive a quizzical look in response. The island is largely volcanic basalt, the soils rich in minerals, and further examination of the soil types seems to be unnecessary. Madeira is more about the grape, and the winemaking, than the terroir.
5. There is no flat land on Madeira; every square foot of land is a slope, or the peak of a slope. This may be a slight exaggeration of course, but it is true that all agriculture I saw – whether grapes, bananas, or other fruit – takes place on terraces perched on the side of sometimes steep, mountainous slopes.
6. Madeira is really about Tinta Negra (a red variety – in case tinta didn’t give it away!), in terms of quantity, but the other five grapes are more interesting when it comes to the search for top quality. These are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual/Boal, Malvasia/Malmsey and the rather rarely seen Terrantez. The appeal of Tinta Negra, for the growers, is disease resistance – Madeira can be very humid, engendering rot.
7. There are table wines produced on Madeira, as I indicated in my post on the 2012 Vinha da Defesa from Herdade do Esporão, but they remain a minority interest. Verdelho and Malvasia are common choices for the wine, but I also saw (and tasted) some made from Arnsburger, a Riesling x Riesling cross dating to 1939. The appeal of this variety is no doubt its rot-resistance. Stick with Verdelho and Malvasia is my advice.
8. The north-west of the island is wet and cool, the south-east dry and hot; in order to facilitate agriculture – including the vine – in the south water is transported by levadas, water channels which criss-cross the island.
9. All Madeira wine is fortified, heated and oxidized to some extent or another. Alright, to be honest I already know this, but seeing it all in the flesh has really cemented this knowledge in my mind. Cheaper, entry-level three-year old blends are likely to be heated in estufas over three months, but higher up the quality ladder the heating occurs in barrel, in lofts. The cycles of humid heating and cooling produces curiously warped ends to some barrels, the wood having expanded and contracted in situ.
10. Madeira is a beautiful island, full of friendly people. And when you get bored of wine, or of walking the levadas, you can take a trip out to sea, to go dolphin and whale-watching. Highly recommended!
Perhaps most importantly of all, my view of the wines of Madeira has changed completely. My mental image of Madeira was of a sweet, dark brown liquid, smelling of Christmas and probably a good match for a festive slice of the requisite cake, but ultimately lacking the precision and energy that makes wine, for me, truly interesting. I have learnt that this belief was erroneous, as I have discovered that Madeira can be vibrant, cerebral and exciting. I have learnt that single-vintage colheita wines can offer excellent value and quality combined, and are no less worthy than the greatest wines of Jerez. And I have learnt that ancient Madeira, wines more than a hundred years old, are not the decrepit but venerable old drops I imagined them to be, but are in fact rich, vinous and very complex, and are no less exciting than their counterparts from the Douro (and they hold up much better). In short, I will keep an eye out for Madeira for adding to my cellar in the future; these are not wines to be ignored.
Over the next couple of weeks, I will publish reports on my visits to Blandy’s and Barbeito, and then – perhaps during a mid-point breather in my regular Sunday Bordeaux Guide updates – I have a four-page guide to Madeira to publish, with rather more detail than presented in my ten-point guide above.